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Submitted by Rolf Jordan of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.

Ralph Vaughan Williams and 49th Parallel
By Rolf Jordan

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 at Down Ampney in South Gloucestershire. When considering his illustrious career as a film composer, it is important to remember two facts- firstly that RVW was older than cinema itself, and secondly that he had, by the outbreak of WW2, written masterpieces in almost every musical category. He had, importantly, supplied incidental music for theatre for well over thirty years. Therefore it was inevitable that RVW's curiosity would turn to the newest of mediums before long:

Some years ago I happened to say to the composer Arthur Benjamin that I should like to have a shot at writing for the films. He seemed surprised and shocked that I should wish to attempt anything which required so much skill and gained so little artistic reward. However, he mentioned my curious wish to a well-known film conductor. The result was that, one Saturday evening, I had a telephone call asking me to write some film music.

The conductor was Muir Mathieson, and the film was 49th Parallel. Vaughan Williams accepted, and the venerable composer, much loved for his contemplative style, had his first introduction to writing a film score:

When I asked how long I would have to prepare it, the answer was, `Till Wednesday.'

Mathieson's own account of this first meeting reveals much of Vaughan William's personality,

When I went to see Vaughan Williams at his country home in the spring of 1940, I found him strangely depressed at his inability to play a fuller part in the war. He felt that the musicians had done little to express the spirit and resolve of the British people. At this time he was `doing his bit' by driving a cart round the village and countryside, collecting scrap metal and salvage.. I told him the story of 49th Parallel and tried to show how the cinema could help to achieve those very objects for which he was striving.

Vaughan Williams had fought over-age in WW1 (the legacy of which was increasing deafness), but this time, at almost 70, there was no chance of being called to active duty. Although he would prove to be useful later on in the war with refugees and other such compassionate causes, writing music for `propaganda' films must have seemed to him a reasonable compromise.

Poet Ursula Vaughan Wiliams, the composer's widow, wrote an account of the recording sessions for 49th Parallel in the 1963 biography of her husband :

The 49th Parallel recordings were most exciting - the London Symphony Orchestra, led by George Stratton, enjoyed themselves, the tunes seemed to fit well to the film sequences, Ralph did not appear to be at all nervous, he was prepared to cut, enlarge, alter, adapt - in fact he had begun to realise that, as he said later, you could use the same music for a landscape, a car crash, or a love scene; it would sound different if it looked different. But there seemed to be very little that needed changing, except for the short Austrian folk song he had put in for Glynis Johns to sing in the Hutterite settlement. She was very young, very frightened of the orchestra, and quite unable to sing it in the key in which it had been written - sing it as you like, said Ralph, and I'll change the key. But it was no good, so eventually George Stratton more or less played it into her ear, and she managed a husky hum, while Muir Mathieson whistled the second verse - and so after a delay of an hour or so the half minute was recorded.

Another interesting `insider' view of the production of the 49th Parallel music comes from Roy Douglas, who later served as Vaughan Williams' long-suffering copyist. In the introduction to his book on the working relationship with the composer, he details an incident that eventually led to his engagement as `amanuensis'. Vaughan Williams famously had utterly appalling handwriting, the result of being forced to write right-handed to correct his natural left-handedness:

..I was told that at the first three-hour recording session almost the entire time was taken up with correcting the wrong notes in the band parts. This annoyed the film company because it wasted their money, and film companies consider they have better ways of wasting money than on the unnecessary luxury of music. The musical director sent a strong complaint to the copying bureau, with the result that when, in the following year, R.V.W. wrote the music for another film, Coastal Command, the offended copyists refused to have anything to do with the scores.

In the spirit of wartime recycling, the music composed for `49th Parallel' did not end its active life at the close of the recording sessions. The most well known cue, the `Prelude', was given words by Harold Child and retitled `The New Commonwealth', and published in 1943. There have been other instrumental arrangements since then, including those for brass band, and organ.

Vaughan Williams' String Quartet (No. 2) in A minor, first performed in 1944 at one of the celebrated National Gallery concerts, contains the Nazi theme in it's Scherzo third movement, marked in the score `theme from the 49th Parallel'.

Finally, the solo piano piece published in 1947 `The Lake in the Mountains' is based on the tranquil music heard in the Leslie Howard sequence of the film.

Intriguingly, (because nobody is quite sure*), a Suite from the film was given a solitary performance at Prague in 1946; it consisted of 9 items. They are:

Warning in a dance hall
Hudson's Bay (a) Un canadien errant (b) L'Alouette
Nazis on the prowl
The Hutterite settlement (a) Anna's Volkslied `Lasst uns das Kindlein Wiegen' (b) The wheatfield
Indian festival
The Lake in the mountains
Nazis on the run

It is worth noting that despite the presence of `The Lake in the Mountains' a piano is not used in the instrumentation of the suite. This sounds like an intriguing rarity, well worth revival, and one wonders quite what the `Warning in a dance hall' section of the film may have looked like before hitting the cutting room floor.

Music scholars can peruse all the working notes, sketches and scores of the soundtrack in the British Library, where they were deposited by his widow.

VaughanWilliams went on to score several more films- some forgotten, such as `The Loves of Joanna Godden' and `Flemish Farm' (a haunting score nonetheless), and others more celebrated- the short `Coastal Command' and `Scott of the Antarctic', which directly resulted in his awesome `Sinfonia Antartica', the 7th of his visionary symphonic cycle. Interest in Vaughan Williams' film scores is growing thanks to the CD market, and there are several fine discs available now, with more in the pipeline.



49th Parallel Prelude- (in an all RVW disc in the `Marco Polo Film Music Classics' series), RTE concert Orchestra/ Andrew Penny (Marco Polo 8.223665)

String Quartet No 2 in A minor- (RVW Chamber music compilation in the `EMI British Composers' series), Music Group of London (CDM 5 65100 2)

The Lake in the Mountains- (RVW chamber music disc- also includes the above quartet), Nash Ensemble (Hyperion CDA67313)

The Pearl label currently has several discs of all vintage recordings featuring a good diversity of composers and performers-
British Film Music Vol 1 contains RVW's `Scott of the Antarctic' and Easdale's `The Red Shoes' 0100 GEM
British Film Music Vol 2 contains the `49th Parallel Prelude' 0101 GEM
British Film Music Vol 3 contains RVW's `The Loves of Joanna Godden' and Gray's `A Matter of Life and Death' 0141 GEM
There is a further all RVW disc including his 6th Symphony, `Scott of the Antarctic' and `49th Parallel Prelude' 0107 GEM

The Film Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Volume 1 (CHAN 10007) is the first of 3 volumes (will one of the others include a full 49th Parallel?) and offers a full score of `Scott of the Antarctic', and music from `Costal Command' and `The People's land'. Part of Chandos' ongoing film music series

Update (August, 2004): See The Film Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Volume 2 for the closest currently available to the "49th Parallel Suite" mentioned above:

  1. Prelude [opening titles] (2:13)
  2. Prologue (11:20)
  3. Control Room Alert (2:03)
  4. Hudson Bay Post (1:27)
  5. Looting the Store (0:46)
  6. Death of Kühnecke (1:57)
  7. Hutterite Settlement (a) Anna's Volkslied (3:14)
  8. Hutterite Settlement (b) The Wheat Harvest (1:47)
  9. Winnipeg I (2:50)
  10. Winnipeg II (1:08)
  11. Nazi March (3:15)
  12. Indian Music I (0:29)
  13. Indian Music II (1:00)
  14. Indian Music III (0:46)
  15. Nazis on the run & The Lake in the Mountains (2:08)
  16. Prelude [closing titles] (2:12)

See also, The Film Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Volume 3. All three volumes are published by Chandos.

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For more information on Ralph Vaughan Williams

I was contacted by Francis Wright who wrote:
... thought it might interest you to know that the "solitary performance" was part of a festival of British Film.

The Festival was organised by my father, Dr Bedrich Belohlavek, who had spent the War years exiled in London, working with the Czech Government. His job was to arrange the purchase of British Films, to help with the rebuilding of his country's morale when histilities came to an end.

Olivier's HENRY V (which was still in production) BRIEF ENCOUNTER, and a host of other classics (including many of those remarkable documentary films by directors such as Cavalcanti) were bought, and they, along with many of their stars, producers, directors, composers (Bejamin Britten unfortunately was not available, but I have his letter of excuse!) made their way to Czechoslovakia, and apparently had a wonderful time. I don't recall if Powell or Pressburger or both managed the trip, but I am certain they were asked.

Very little written information about the Festival actually remains, but what there is (letters, photos, any available publicity material) I have deposited with the British Film Institute. (Given their extraordinary track-record with archive material, I only hope this was a sensible move!)

I seem to recall that there is a printed programme of film music which includes the piece mentioned above.

There was also a nitrate-film newsreel covering the Festival, which is now housed in the BFI's cold-store. Rather safer than my fridge.

Anyway, enough of this. I thought you might like to know a tiny bit more about the fate of the Vaughan-Williams. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate. If I know the answer, I will be only too happy to help.

All good wishes,

Francis Wright

Richmond, Surrey

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